CALGARY — Depending on who you ask, there could be some restless moments before the 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
One of the CFL’s two longest active Grey Cup droughts will come to an end on Sunday, when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers square off at McMahon Stadium in Calgary.
It’s times like this when, for many players, even some of the simplest tasks fail to be routine.
“I’m a bad sleeper, I’ve never been a good sleeper,” Bombers quarterback Zach Collaros said following Saturday’s walkthrough. “It’s usually once I wake up, whether it’s 5 or 6 a.m. that I’m not falling back asleep. The scenarios start playing through your head.”
Collaros has restored faith in the Bombers’ offence, leading the team to road playoff victories over Calgary and Saskatchewan. The Bombers were 7-2 when opening day starter Matt Nichols suffered a season-ending injury, at the time putting their season in serious jeopardy.
However, Collaros has won all three starts with his new team, averaging 9.2 yards per attempt while compiling a quarterback rating of 109.1. His ability to challenge defences vertically has complemented an offence averaging a CFL-high 148 rushing yards per game in 2019.
Of the many Blue Bombers feeling the weight of a 28-year Grey Cup drought, a victory on Sunday would mean a lot to Andrew Harris. The Winnipeg native led the league with 1,909 yards from scrimmage and a career-high 6.1 yards per carry, and is in search of his first championship since 2011, when he broke into the league with the BC Lions.
“In 2011 I didn’t really realize or appreciate how difficult it is to get in these games,” said Harris. “Representing my city that I grew up in, how excited everyone is back home. The sense of pride that a community has for our team. It’s massive.”
Harris has a special relationship with the city he grew up in, signing with his hometown as a free agent in 2016. Now, after losing in the Western Final last year, the Bombers’ running back is closer than ever to bringing a Grey Cup back to Winnipeg.
“Growing up I saw them go to the cup and lose,” Harris said of the Bombers. “It’s indescribable to me at this point. I’ve been reflecting about it since I’ve been in Winnipeg. Leading up to this it’s definitely a dream come true and now it’s about going out and executing and getting it done.”
The Mike O’Shea-led Bombers could be described as resilient, which showed in the Western Final when a 107-yard touchdown drive and two late goal line stands led Winnipeg to a 20-13 win over the Riders. Cody Fajardo’s third down pass hit the crossbar of the upright on the final play of the game to seal victory, as the Winnipeg defence didn’t allow a single touchdown.
“Three down football with moments left and them on the doorstep and finding ways to finish, that’s a championship calibre effort and performance,” said linebacker Adam Bighill. “Now we just have to go out there and do it again.”
For Bighill, who won a Grey Cup in 2011 alongside Harris, the magnitude of Sunday’s game is not lost.
“Stepping on the field during walkthrough and thinking about the moment, I almost had a tear in my eye,” he said. “The emotions and feelings of winning a Grey Cup, and when you win, you rush the field and show so much love to every teammate you have. That feeling reminded me of how much I want this again.”
While the Bombers last played for a Grey Cup in 2011, the Ticats make their return to the spotlight for the first time since 2014. That year conjures up bad memories for several players on the team, as a holding penalty against linebacker Taylor Reed negated a potential game-winning punt return touchdown by Brandon Banks in the game’s final moments.
The Ticats would lose 20-16 to the Stampeders, their second Grey Cup loss in as many years. For linebacker Simoni Lawrence, the wound still hasn’t healed. Lawrence led the CFL with 98 tackles and was the runner up for Most Outstanding Defensive Player to Winnipeg’s Willie Jefferson.
“It hurts a lot,” he said. “It’s one of those feelings that’s hard to get out until you win, because it’s still in my heart. It still hurts. I feel like the only way for me to remove that feeling is to win one with my teammates.”
Receiver Luke Tasker and defensive tackle Ted Laurent were also key members of the 2014 Ticats, but they aren’t the only ones looking back on what happened. Orlondo Steinauer, named the CFL’s Coach of the Year on Thursday night, uses five years ago as a teaching point for the entire roster.
“I think I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother them at all, or it hasn’t crossed their mind,” said Steinauer. “But it is in the past. We just said we do not want to put the game in the referee’s hands, because half the time they’re going to call it and half the time they’re not. Let’s control what we can control.
“That’s the only address we’ve made to the past,” he added. “Should things turn out in our favour, I’m sure it’ll be very sweet for those that had to endure that pain.”
The Ticats won a franchise record 15 games this season, the most in the CFL thanks in part to the play of sophomore quarterback Dane Evans. The 26-year-old took over in Week 8 after Jeremiah Masoli suffered a season-ending injury, but has played his best football since Labour Day, averaging 374 yards per game with 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions in his last eight games
Despite a long layoff between games, Evans was at his best last week, throwing for 386 yards and a touchdown in a 36-16 win over the Edmonton Eskimos in the Eastern Final. Of his 36 passing attempts, a season-high 11 were in the 20-plus yard range, including a highlight-reel 47-yard touchdown to Banks.
Banks and Bralon Addison form the league’s deadliest receiving duo this season, combining for 2,786 yards and 20 touchdowns. Their big-play ability helped Hamilton lead the CFL in explosive plays, with 31 passes of 30-plus yards. The Ticats will likely air it out again on Sunday, as the Bombers boast the second best run defence in modern history, allowing just 64.2 yards per game on the ground.
Hamilton enters the Grey Cup as the CFL’s top-ranked offence, leading in most major categories including points per game (30.6), yards per game (395.8), first downs (398), and touchdowns (57). Still, despite owning the better regular season record, the Ticats don’t view themselves as the favourite to win — even if the odds say otherwise.
“I don’t feel that at all,” said Steinauer. “Anybody can beat anybody. This team is physical, they’ve earned their way here. I’m just looking forward to the competition. I don’t put much stock into who’s favoured and who’s not. It’s 0-0. This is the fun part, the buildup, but you have to play the game.”
The Ticats, after all, feel almost the same pressure as the Bombers, looking to end a Grey Cup drought dating back to 1999. Asked what it would mean to bring a championship to the city of Hamilton, Steinauer summed it up easily.
“Everything,” he said. “There’s a lot of people vested in this and there would be a lot of happy people. That’s an understatement. It’s about the city, the ticket sales people, the janitors, the bus drivers — all the little things that nobody pays attention to. There’s so much that goes into it. So yeah, go back to the first word, everything.”
The Bombers have activated national safety Jeff Hecht, who returns from the injured list to back up Brandon Alexander. Offensive lineman Geoff Gray will not dress, with Patrick Neufeld and 2019 draft pick Drew Desjarlais getting the starting assignments at guard. Receiver Lucky Whitehead remains sidelined, while short-yardage quarterback Chris Streveler is listed as the third string.
Hamilton will make only one change since last week’s win, replacing Cameron Marshall with veteran Tyrell Sutton at running back. Sutton, a seventh-year back with more than 4,000 career rushing yards, wasn’t healthy enough to play last week.
The Ticats swept the two-game season series against the Bombers, including a 33-13 win on the road back in September.
BY THE NUMBERS:
5 – Consecutive Grey Cup losses for the Bombers. The record is seven losses in a row by Regina-Saskatchewan from 1923 to 1951.
+7 – The Bombers’ turnover ratio in two post-season wins over Saskatchewan and Calgary, matching their regular season total. Winnipeg ranked second in the CFL with 45 takeaways.
11 – Of the last 14 Grey Cups have been won by the team with the better regular season record. The Ticats have the edge in that department after a franchise record 15-win season.
19 – Combined passing attempts of 20-plus yards in depth for Zach Collaros and Dane Evans. In that range, Collaros was 4-of-8 for 165 yards and a TD; Evans was 6-of-11 for 204 yards, one TD and one INT.
20 – Justin Medlock‘s streak of successful field goal attempts entering the Grey Cup, including a perfect 8-for-8 in the playoffs.
24 – Explosive plays on offence for the Ticats over the last eight games, including pass plays of 30-plus yards and run plays of 20-plus yards. Winnipeg has made seven explosive plays in two playoff games.
308 – Passing yards for Dane Evans in the first half alone the last time these teams met. The Ticats led 24-10 at halftime and rolled to a 33-13 victory to sweep the season series.
AFI, Yare Media and the CFL
American Football International is collaborating with Yare Media and the Canadian Football League to present 2019 CFL games live. This is more than a livestream. This is a stream of the top flight TSN network television broadcast.
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